If I learned anything about the numerous, colorful Christkindlmarkts (Christmas markets) along the winding Danube River in Austria and Germany, it's that the foods are a powerful draw. A very powerful draw.
Eating your way through the once-a-year extravaganzas that pop up at the beginning of the Advent season between Vienna and Nuremberg seems to be the most popular activity at these month-long food fests.
Millions of people jam large and small village plazas like Passau, Linz, Regensburg—and even tiny Melk, Austria—to imbibe in the alcohol-laced hot Glühwein, chomp down a plate of piping hot potato pancakes, or envelope an oversized, calorie-laden deep-fried jelly-filled donut to top off the evening. And that's just for starters.
At most markets, fully 50 percent or more of the market stalls (it's said there are as many as 2,500 different Christkindlmarkts in Germany) feature some sort of food or drink. The variety of foods seems endless, and the lines of people that form to taste these hearty foods sometimes seems endless as well.
The market mantra is if it's sweet, it's hot or if it's fried, it will attract a large crowd of hungry customers, who'll likely re-visit the stall more than once during the Advent season. The beverages served at the markets are just as beguiling.
By the river in downtown Nuremberg, and not far from the very famous 160-stall Nuremberger Market, the largest punch bowl in the world helps satisfy the thirst of thousands of young adults who camp out for hours to socialize and sample the hot rum. The copper punch bowl, as large as a small car, symbolizes the extent to which market visitors are enthralled by what goes in their stomachs at these affairs. And it seems to work: Christkindlmarkts are not about to vanish any time soon in the Germanic lands, and they grow in popularity every year.
As one middle-aged Polish woman said in her broken English while gazing over the multi-acre Vienna Rathaus Market, “I moved to Vienna 22 years ago, I've been to each market since, and I am very happy to see it every year.”
I followed the Christmas markets two ways: by boat and by train. I booked a Viking River cruise for five nights between Vienna and Nuremberg, enjoying the comfort—and the first-class foods—of the Viking Aegir, as well as the many guided tours that are part of the ship’s itinerary. This includes the Christmas markets along the legendary Danube, a fascinating, beautiful river landscape that was no less than the “Route of the Emperors and Kings” when Roman emperors and crusaders traveled it, along with King Louis VII of France and Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa with their entourages.
As Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube has been a vital means of transportation for 2,000 years, and today provides a water link between Germany and Austria. The Christmas markets flourish along this stretch of the river.
Following my arrival in Nuremberg and after visiting its market that goes back to the mid-16th century, I backtracked with a Rail Europe Intercity Express (ICE) train to Linz, and then finally back to Vienna to visit two more Viennese markets, to make my market tally 19 markets in eight fun-and-food-filled days.
The many beverage stands also offer Christmas punch which can consist of combinations of tea, red wine, rum, fresh lemon and orange juice and spices. You can also ask for it without the rum. Either way, I think I easily consumed five mugs of it on this trip.
“There is a difference in the types of punch served from market to market,” said one man who grew up in Vienna's inner neighborhoods and knows his Glühweins and hot spiced beverages. This advice encourages visitors to try more than one vendor’s beverage stand.
This is Europe, so you won't find milk shakes, hot coffee or soda at the markets, but you will find bags of coffee beans and tea for sale to take home with you.
In medieval Regensburg, you can load up on “Original Regensburger Pumpkin Soup” if it’s cold outside, or you can purchase chocolate tools. Yes, I’m talking hammers, saws, screwdrivers, calipers and door locks—even water faucets—that look like the real thing, but are incredibly edible chocolates.
A MARZIPAN MOMENT
If you have a sweet tooth for marzipan, look no further: the Christmas markets along the Danube are your friend. The sugary taste of marzipan can be purchased in the form of marzipan candy bars, in the shape of small animals or imitation fruits and vegetables, or even in the shape of a large loaf of bread, called Marzipanbrot.
There’s also the Schneeball, which I found in Passau, which is a pastry made of strips of dough rolled into a ball and decorated with icing sugar, hence the name “snowball.” A typical cake found in the Rothenburg ob der Tauber area of Germany, the Schneeball comes with a variety of coatings and is usually about 3 1/2” in diameter. Check with your doctor before inhaling one of these temptations.
Also popular in Nuremberg since the 14th century are their famous 3 1/2-inch-long white sausages called the Queen of Bratwurst; you'll get three of them stuffed on a large bun with sauerkraut and mustard—hold the ketchup.
A BOARING PROPOSITION
How about a wild boar sandwich? At the beautiful Schloss Thurn and Taxis market, held on the sprawling wooded palace grounds with fire pots blazing to warm visitors and bright torches lining the path through the market, the boars are shot in the palace woods, the meat cooked on a roaring fire and served in a quaint wooded hut. For the not-so-adventurous, the booth also offers a bratwurst sandwich.
The food possibilities continue with cured hams and delicate cheeses which come wrapped and labeled from regions not far from the Christmas markets. The Maroni—roasted chestnut— vendors, like to cook large slices of potatoes in accompanying roasting pans and serve the nuts and potatoes as a “meal” to customers. The “roasters” usually sit atop large wooden barrels to attract attention.
Or, you can build your dream waffle or your dream crepe with a large assortment of toppings, from whipped cream to fruits to chocolate sauce.
Along with the large variety of foods, the Christmas markets offer tiny lighted ceramic villages in various colors —houses, churches and half-timbered multi-story structures, all with hipped roofs like those seen in typical German or Austrian villages. Then there are natural wood, hand made Christmas toys and decorations from the Erzgebirge area of Germany carved by craftsmen whose families have been doing this for generations.
Beautiful, large multi-pointed stars, called sterne, are also available in red, yellow, blue, white and other colors to hang in a window or from a ceiling to brighten the holidays. Along these same lines, you can shop for small glass bowels with painted designs of villages, trees or other motifs that when lit with a candle from the inside, glow throughout the room. Shopping, visiting with friends over a tasty Glühwein and devouring warm comfort food is what the colorful Christmas markets are all about. You can always start that new diet later.
Don Heimburger's grandfather came from Ottenheim, Germany, a small village near the Black Forest. Don says he's never been to a Christmas market he didn't like.
For more information: www.germany.travel; www.austria.info